Star Trek: The Original Series – “Court Martial” (season 1, episode 20)
Teleplay by Don M. Mankiewicz and Steven W. Carabatsos; story by Don M. Mankiewicz; directed by Marc Daniels; first aired in 1967
The Enterprise visits Starbase 11 for repairs after suffering damage, and losing crew member Benjamin Finney, in an ion storm. A routine debrief with the Starbase’s commander, Commodore Stone, becomes a lot less routine when the late Finney’s daughter accuses Captain Kirk of murdering her father. And to Kirk’s surprise, computer records from the Enterprise do, in fact, show him ejecting a pod containing Finney, sending the man to his death, before it was necessary to do so. This contradicts Kirk’s story – not to mention his memory – and Stone offers to let Kirk off easy if he’ll just admit that the pressures of command have gotten to him, saving Starfleet the embarrassment of court-martialing a captain. But Kirk demands the chance to prove his innocence, leading Stone to call for a full court martial after all. Kirk’s old flame, Lieutenant Areel Shaw, recommends the services of simple country space-lawyer Samuel T. Cogley, while Shaw herself prosecutes the case. Bones, Spock, and Kirk himself testify to the Captain’s glowing service record, but Kirk is shown to have a possible motive, since he and Finney had a falling out after Finney blamed Kirk for holding back his career; and besides, computer records can’t lie, can they? Turns out, hey, they totally can, as Spock realizes that the Enterprise’s main computer has been tampered with. The court martial reconvenes to the Enterprise to investigate this new evidence, where they find that Kirk can’t possibly have killed Finney, who is still alive and hiding in engineering after framing Kirk. Finney, clearly unwell, almost destroys the Enterprise as his final revenge, but gives up once he realizes his daughter is on board for the court martial proceedings. Kirk is fully exonerated, Cogley signs on to defend Finney in his own trial, and Shaw admits that she’s okay with losing this particular case.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Rules of Engagement” (season 4, episode 18)
Teleplay by Ronald D. Moore; story by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle; directed by LeVar Burton; first aired in 1996
We open on Worf waking from a nightmare of dead Klingon children … only to find himself in a holding cell, awaiting an extradition hearing. As Starfleet Admiral T’Lara begins the hearing, we’re told that the Klingon Empire holds Worf responsible for the destruction of a Klingon civilian transport which decloaked in the midst of a battle between Klingon warships and the Defiant under Worf’s command. Klingon lawyer Ch’Pok argues for Worf’s extradition to the Empire, while Captain Sisko argues in Worf’s defense. As Dax, Quark, and O’Brien are called to testify, it becomes clear that Ch’Pok intends to use Worf’s exile from the Empire, and his unique position as a Klingon warrior living among soft humans, to question Worf’s state of mind and his command decisions. It’s also clear to Sisko that the Empire hopes to use Worf to embarrass Starfleet and keep them from intervening any further in the Klingon-Cardassian war. Ch’Pok’s constant taunting eventually goads Worf into attacking him mid-hearing, and just as things look grim for the defense, Sisko finds and presents evidence that the Klingon Empire staged the destruction of the civilian ship, and that there were, in fact, no civilians on board. An exonerated Worf later admits to Sisko that Ch’Pok wasn’t entirely wrong about his feelings toward the Empire and his fellow Klingons, and that he had no excuse for firing on a decloaking ship before identifying it, in the midst of battle or not. An angry Sisko says Worf is “damned right” about that, and reminds him how lucky he is that there weren’t any civilians on the ship he destroyed. Worf doesn’t feel lucky, though … which gives Sisko hope that he’s still commanding officer material.
One of the things I’ve always loved about science fiction is how well-suited it is for mash-ups with other genres of storytelling. I think we’re seeing more and more of this in mainstream pop culture, as sci-fi and fantasy continue to move from the fringes of the entertainment industry toward its center, with a couple of my favorite recent examples being the Netflix sci-fi dramedy Russian Doll, and the sci-fi Western film Prospect (also available on Netflix, here in Canada at least). But ever since Gene Roddenberry first pitched The Original Series as “Wagon Train to the stars,” describing it (however accurately) as a space western in its own right, “sci-fi meets [insert genre here]” has been a go-to formula for Star Trek episodes. “Sci-fi meets submarine thriller” gave The Original Series one of its most important episodes, in “Balance of Terror,” and almost arguably its most important film, in The Wrath of Khan; “sci-fi meets film noir” produced Voyager’s awful “Ex Post Facto,” but it also gave us Deep Space Nine’s excellent “Necessary Evil.” And “sci-fi meets courtroom drama” has given us any number of episodes across the various Trek TV series, including the classic Next Generation episodes “The Measure of a Man” and “The Drumhead,” as well as the episodes we’ll look at here: The Original Series’ “Court Martial” and Deep Space Nine’s “Rules of Engagement.”
It’s not hard to understand why Trek would go to the well of courtroom drama so often. First, the trial process offers a ready-made, tried-and-true story structure which will be familiar to almost anyone in the audience (it’s no fluke that the Law & Order franchise has collectively produced fifty-three seasons of television, as of the time I’m writing this, with presumably more to come). Second, aside from lending a handy structure to the plot of an episode, a trial is the perfect opportunity to tackle complex social issues, as Star Trek so often does; these issues can be argued directly and dramatically in the courtroom setting, much as they are in real-world courtrooms. And speaking of real worlds, the space-courtroom drama also allows us a glimpse of the Federation as a working society, outside the bridges and operations centres of Starfleet ships and stations. However utopian it might be, we mostly see the Star Trek universe through the eyes of officers in a semi-military organization with a rigid hierarchy, and a trial is the perfect opportunity to show us how Starfleet and the Federation handle matters that can’t be solved simply by passing orders down the chain of command.
“Court Martial,” coming midway through the first season of The Original Series, doesn’t ask any big sociopolitical questions, but it does give us a glimpse of what 23rd-century life is like, and how Starfleet operates, outside the confines of the flagship of the fleet. This isn’t the Enterprise’s first visit to Starbase 11; viewers first saw this particular Starbase in Star Trek’s first courtroom drama, “The Menagerie,” in which Spock tricks the crew into stopping there to pick up his old commanding officer, Captain Pike. But unlike “The Menagerie,” where Spock’s trial takes place on board the Enterprise, “Court Martial” spends enough time on the Starbase to show us some Starfleet officers off-duty, just relaxing in a bar, presumably on shore leave from a number of different ships. We don’t get scenes like these from The Original Series as often as we later would from The Next Generation, with its Ten Forward lounge, and of course from the station-bound Deep Space Nine, but I always enjoy them when we get them; like the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars, such scenes give us the sense that there is a larger universe beyond what we’re seeing.
And Kirk’s court martial itself gives us a sense of Starfleet as an actual organization, something about which The Original Series is often quite vague (particularly in this first season, when the creative team was clearly, and understandably, still world-building as they went). We see, from Kirk’s initial debriefing with Commodore Stone, the bureaucratic, fine-print-oriented side of Starfleet. And in Stone’s offer to be lenient on Kirk if he admits his guilt and saves them all the embarrassment of court-martialing the captain of their flagship, we see a Starfleet that may not be quite as altruistic as we fans sometimes assume it is – a Starfleet that makes decisions based not just on rules and principles, but on appearances and public perception. But “Court Martial” shows us a better side of Starfleet as well, and a more genuinely optimistic take on humanity’s future, by using the panel of high-ranking officers judging Kirk’s court martial to showcase the organization’s ethnic diversity – specifically, and importantly, the diversity of their leadership.
It’s one thing, and not a small thing in the 1960s, for The Original Series to show Uhura (a black woman), Sulu (an East Asian man), and Chekov (a Russian character, on a show airing at the height of the Cold War) serving on the bridge of the Enterprise, with just as much responsibility and capability as their peers. But it’s another thing entirely, I think, to show such diversity in the upper echelons of Starfleet – to show diversity not just in the rank and file, but among those who get to order the rank and file around. The casting of Percy Rodriguez as Commodore Stone in this episode seems especially significant in that regard. Stone is a person of color in a high-ranking position of authority over a white man, with the white man in question just happening to be the beloved lead character of the series (or one of them, at least). And not only is Stone an authority figure, he’s shown to be an effective and reasonable one, which is kind of a big deal in a series which would build more than a few episodes around misguided higher-ups giving Kirk obviously questionable orders. While Kirk is ultimately exonerated in this episode (because of course he is), Stone’s court-martialing of the Captain is understandable, given the evidence at hand, and I don’t think we’re ever meant to see him as anything other than tough, but fair.
This early in the series, The Original Series has some character-building to do in addition to its world-building, and Kirk’s court martial allows for that, as well. Some of that character-building is awkwardly heavy-handed; after hearing Spock, McCoy, and Kirk himself testify at length to the Captain’s sterling, spotless record, I can’t help thinking, “Okay, okay, we get it – he’s perfect and awesome and couldn’t possibly be found guilty … so why are we watching him be put on trial?” (We’ll come back to this, below.) But having Kirk demand his own court martial, in order to get to the truth of things, is a character moment I can appreciate, in which we’re not just told of his principles and integrity, but get to actually see them in action.
The dynamic he shares with Lieutenant Shaw, his prosecutor and apparent ex-girlfriend, is another example of this. Pop culture and fan discourse alike tend to portray Kirk as a hopeless sex addict with a life form in every port, but I think this is an exaggeration of what we actually see from The Original Series in general, and it certainly isn’t what we see here in “Court Martial.” In fact, what we do see of their relationship – and the fact that their history doesn’t in any way diminish Shaw, or prevent her from doing her job effectively – feels a bit like the template for Troi and Riker on The Next Generation, a refreshingly mature and angst-free friends-with-benefits situation which gently implies that human society may have overcome some of its more puritanical hang-ups by the 23rd century. And Shaw’s role here ties in nicely with the aforementioned world-building, in that the episode simply assumes that her gender, like Stone’s ethnicity, has no bearing on her intelligence, her principles, or her professionalism – something The Original Series often doesn’t assume of its female supporting characters, with Lieutenant McGivers of “Space Seed” serving as just one of many examples.
If “Court Martial” uses its courtroom setting to great effect in fleshing out the Star Trek universe, it has less success in capitalizing on that setting’s dramatic potential. As mentioned above, the court martial process raises very few serious questions for the audience about Kirk, either as a decent person or as a competent starship captain (aside from the doctored video, which, admittedly, may have carried more weight with audiences in the 1960s, when the idea of computers as infallible might not have been as laughable as it is today). And the episode’s conflict isn’t actually resolved in the courtroom, but in the engine room of the Enterprise, where Kirk gets to show some skin in one of his patented shirt-ripping brawls, and show some compassion for a distraught, paranoid, and conveniently alive Benjamin Finney, the man whose death he was accused of causing. A courtroom drama, with its built-in narrative device of questioning and cross-examination, is a perfect opportunity for dramatic revelations from or about characters, but “Court Martial” isn’t interested in questioning Captain Kirk’s motives or his sterling service record in any serious way, and ends with him fully, unambiguously exonerated. Deep Space Nine’s “Rules of Engagement,” by contrast, is very willing to use its courtroom setting to question Worf’s fitness for command, and to make us uncomfortable with his motives.
Right from its opening scene, “Rules of Engagement” primes us to expect that different characters will have different perspectives on the events in question – that this won’t be simply a matter of discovering who’s telling the truth, and who’s lying. The episode opens not only in Worf’s perspective, but in his literal nightmare, and while we don’t have the context yet for what he’s dreaming about, the images of Klingon warriors standing victorious over dead Starfleet officers, followed by images of dead Klingon children, suggest nothing good. And neither, of course, does the fact that Worf wakes from this nightmare to find himself in one of Odo’s cells. By showing us a clearly troubled Worf in the brig before telling us how he ended up there, the episode immediately plants a seed of doubt as to his innocence, or at least his state of mind, which winds up being crucial to Ch’Pok’s case against his innocence.
The jumbled, disturbing imagery of his nightmare suggests the possibility that Worf’s experience of his space battle with the Klingons may not be entirely reliable, and “Rules of Engagement” doubles down on this with its flashback scenes, each accompanying the testimony of a witness at the hearing. As Quark, Dax, and O’Brien are questioned by Ch’Pok and Sisko, we see each character delivering their answer directly to the camera, as the events they’re describing play out around them. Besides making the hearing process more visually interesting, this narrative device emphasizes the possibility that others may remember or interpret events differently than Worf does, as is the case with Quark’s testimony. In Dax’s case, her insistence that she has no doubts about Worf’s state of mind are interestingly undercut by the fact that her flashback – a holosuite sparing session with Worf – is filmed from Worf’s point of view; even knowing Worf as well as most of the audience probably does at this point, it’s hard to take Dax’s assurances at face value while staring directly at the blade he’s holding to her throat.
And when O’Brien is declared an expert witness on starship combat, and is asked by Ch’Pok if he would have made the same decision Worf made – to fire on an unknown ship as it decloaked – it’s significant that his flashback places him not just on the bridge of the Defiant, but in its captain’s chair. While he protests that Ch’Pok’s question is hypothetical and not based on what really happened, seeing him literally in Worf’s place makes those protests ring false. Again, we, the audience, probably know O’Brien about as well as we know Worf at this point, and if he were in command in that situation, as he is in his altered flashback sequence, we know that he wouldn’t hesitate to take whatever action he thought was necessary and justified. This makes Ch’Pok’s question a perfectly valid one, and lends weight to O’Brien’s answer, which, of course, is “no”; he would not have fired on the decloaking ship before identifying it, even if he still insists that he can’t judge Worf’s decision to fire in the heat of battle, when it was his call to make.
But once he’s done serving as Worf’s advocate, Captain Sisko is more than willing to question Worf’s judgement. As in “Court Martial,” the case itself is essentially resolved outside the courtroom in “Rules of Engagement,” when Odo tracks down evidence that Worf was set up, and that no civilians were actually on board the supposed civilian ship he destroyed. This evidence allows Sisko to win Worf’s case, just as that case is looking hopeless … which is super-convenient, of course, but that’s okay, because the end of the hearing isn’t really the climax of the episode. The scene “Rules of Engagement” has been building towards, I think, is its last scene, coming after the ruling in Worf’s favor – a ruling which, notably, we don’t even see; after Ch’Pok’s case falls apart, we cut directly to a post-hearing conversation between Worf and Sisko. Because the audience probably knew all along that Worf, this fan-favorite character who crossed over from The Next Generation less than a full season before this episode aired, wasn’t going to be extradited to the Klingon Empire. What we don’t know until this final scene, though – what Ch’Pok’s arguments, and Worf’s colleagues’ flashbacks, have been priming us to think about all episode – is whether Ch’Pok might be right about Worf’s motivations, however crooked the Klingons’ case against Worf might have been. He was right, of course; Worf’s judgement was impaired by his anger at the Empire, and firing on an unidentified ship was the wrong call, regardless. Once Worf admits both these things to Sisko, the Captain’s reaction is classic Avery Brooks, instantly shedding the calm restraint he’s had to show throughout the hearing to suddenly let out this righteous, cathartic frustration:
Worf: Ch’Pok was right. I did have something to prove when I took command of the convoy, and I did not realize it until I stood there looking down at him, blood trickling from his mouth. In that moment, I remember thinking, finally, he had given me what I really wanted: a reason to attack him. And I had that same feeling when the Klingon ships first attacked. Finally, a chance for vengeance. I should not have accepted the mission.
Sisko: [low, calm voice] I’m glad you realize that. That was your first mistake. What was your second?
Worf: When the ship decloaked, I should have checked the target before I fired.
Sisko: [raised voice] You’re damned right you should’ve checked! You knew there were civilian ships in the area! You fired at something you hadn’t identified! You made a military decision to protect your ship and crew, but you’re a Starfleet officer, Worf. We don’t put civilians at risk, or even potentially at risk, to save ourselves. Sometimes that means we lose the battle, and sometimes our lives. But if you can’t make that choice, then you can’t wear that uniform.
Unlike Kirk in “Court Martial,” Worf’s place in this series doesn’t require him to be an unquestioned paragon of Starfleet virtue (something of which Deep Space Nine is more skeptical than previous Trek series, at any rate). Worf is relatively new to the command track at this point, as well, and so “Rules of Engagement” is able to use its courtroom drama setting to show that Worf has personal demons to overcome, and lessons to learn about Starfleet philosophy, before being fully ready for command. And this allows “Rules of Engagement” to engage in some world-building of its own, by having Sisko explicitly state one particularly utopian element of that Starfleet philosophy: the ideal Starfleet commanding officer is one who would let their ship be destroyed, and their crew killed, before endangering civilian lives. I love that the episode just tells us this, and leaves no room for debate on the subject, where so many modern “prestige dramas” would feel the need to insist that such idealism is impractical and dangerous, a childish fantasy fit only for an ideal world. Deep Space Nine’s world isn’t quite as ideal as that of The Original Series, but “Rules of Engagement” insists that living in an imperfect world, and being imperfect ourselves, doesn’t excuse us from having ideals, or from taking those ideals seriously.